CHARLIE WHITTEN HAS MADE HIS ROUNDS IN NASHVILLE, AND THE WORLD, AFTER RECENTLY COMING OFF OF A EUROPEAN TOUR PLAYING BASS WITH ANDREW COMBS. WHILE WHITTEN IS KNOWN AND LOVED AS A PLAYER AROUND TOWN, HE’S READY TO GET HIS OWN VOICE AND WORDS OUT THERE. WITH TWO PREVIOUS EPS, HIS NEW EP, PLAYWRIGHT, ISN’T HIS FIRST SOLO RELEASE, BUT IT’S THE FIRST OF HIS OWN THAT HE’S PRODUCED HIMSELF. THE EP HAS DEPTH, BUT ALSO A SENSE OF WHIMSICALITY INTERSPERSED BETWEEN THE DEEPLY THOUGHTFUL AND RESONATING LYRICS. THE DECISION TO RECORD THE SONGS TO TAPE OCCURRED IN A SIMILARLY SPONTANEOUS FASHION WHEN WHITTEN STUMBLED UPON A TWO INCH TAPE AT GOODWILL THAT HE WAS THEN INSPIRED TO USE FOR THE RECORD.
WE SAT DOWN WITH WHITTEN TO TALK ABOUT THE NEW RECORD, HIS UPCOMING TWO WEEK WRITING RETREAT TO NYC, AND SLEEPY TOWNS HE DREAMS OF MOVING TO.
Can you tell us about your background and how you ended up moving to Nashville?
I lived in Charlotte, NC and was going to school at Appalachian State. I was a freshman there and I realized around that point that I wanted to pursue some kind of career in music and I needed to go to a music town. I had a sister going to Vanderbilt as a grad student here in Nashville, and other than that I didn’t know anybody. And all the other music towns - New York, LA, Austin, I didn’t know anybody either so at least I knew one person here, my sister, to help me get my feet on the ground. So I transferred over to Belmont and studied music and some sort of Spirituality minor which was interesting, and so I moved here and stayed put.
Is your sister still here?
She stayed for a long time and had her first baby boy here and then she moved to Pittsburg to do her post-doc program with her husband that she met at Vanderbilt. And now they live in Maryland with another fresh baby boy. She’s three years older than me but it feels like a lot more.
I think people in Nashville stay young longer.
I hope so.
30 here feels like 23 anywhere else. At least based on the phase of life.
It kills me because my little sister is a year younger than me, lives in Knoxville, ownes a house and is killing it too. She works at the University of Tennessee. And here I am, 28 year old Charlie still renting and working part time jobs. But I think I envy them in ways and they envy me in ways and they vocalize that. I get to travel a lot, I’ve gotten to travel a whole lot over the past eight years living in Nashville. I’ve got a lot of great friends and a lot of freedom so there’s a give and take with everything.
You play with other people too. Is that what you do most of the time when you’re not playing your own music?
Yes, I don’t like the word sideman… It’s kind of silly sounding but I like playing guitar and singing harmonies, almost as much as playing writing songs and playing my own stuff so it’s a lot of fun. I currently do that with Becca Mancari in town, Andrew Combs when he’ll have me, and a bunch of other singer-songwriter, really great people. Whoever needs a guitar player or bass player, I’ll just play that gig.
Have you been travelling a lot with stuff like that?
Little one offs with Caleb Groh, went to Cincinnati for a show with Jake McMullen, went to New York and did a couple showcases. Prior to that, the biggest tour I did was overseas with Andrew for about a month. We went to Europe and it was so much fun.
For the most recent record?
For his most recent release, yeah. We did the American tour then went to Europe. It was so much fun to play bass and that’s the first time I had played bass in a long time.
You’re primarily a guitar player?
How did you pick up playing bass?
I think Andrew had heard me play guitar and sing with people and thought, “He could probably play bass too.” He bought me a plane ticket to Ireland without ever hearing me play bass or play a song, he just figured I could do it.
Had you ever played bass?
That was my first instrument growing up because none of my other friends wanted to play it. They all wanted to play guitar or drums in our garage band, so I picked up the bass. But I haven’t picked it up since I was 16 or 17. I switched to guitar shortly after that. BUt I had the rudiments down. I knew how to use my fingers the right way with the bass. So it was easy coming back to it.
How had playing with other musicians influenced your own music?
I think when you have to serve someone else’s viewpoint in the song, it’s just helped me approach songs way more, “How is this going to sound as a band?” rather than just me writing with a piano or guitar in my room. I’m already thinking from the writing process at the get go where the bass player is going to fit into the mix, or keys or any sort of paddy organ, or other pad like keys are going to fit in and add into the blend and texture. So I think I’m writing from a standpoint of how is this going to sound full band, rather than myself in a room which is a first for me because I wrote both previous albums with that in mind. I built the songs with the guitar parts that were already written. Whereas with this most recent album that I’m about to put out, it was way more of a - Yeah, I’ll write the songs on guitar and stuff but immediately stripped them back down and thought about the band atmosphere, off the bat which I think came from playing with other people and thinking about the song in that kind of picture.
So it sounds like you’re taking a bit more of the producer role?
Absolutely, yeah, this album was produced by myself and the engineer actually, there wasn’t really any outside producers in the room. So between Billy Bennett and I, we called all the shots for this release and I think it turned out really nice and it’s really spacious and lush and pretty.
Where did you record it?
The Bomb Shelter in East Nashville. It’s great vibes, great guys.
Can you talk a little about the vibe of the album?
It’s just 4 songs, it’s an EP. But it’s the first thing I’ve ever pressed to vinyl because we tracked it on two inch tape and it just has a nice warm sound that we wanted to continue into the process. And there’s just something about sitting down with these four songs that I think go hand in hand with each other and they’re written around the same time and the same musicians played on them all. Anyway, I think it’s just nice to put them on vinyl and have two tracks on each side. It’s a 12 inch, 45 rpm so it goes by pretty quickly. You listen to two songs then flip it. And it’s just a nice way to listen to it and the jackets look really good. Other than that, we tracked it over the course of two to three days, and it was all done pretty much live in the room, minimal overdubs. It was mixed down and mastered to tape and it was a fairly quick process. The releasing process just takes forever…
Are you planning on staying in Nashville?
That’s an excellent question. I’ve lived here for a long time and I’m not one to say this town is changing because that’s going to happen to when any cool town is cool and it’s cool to have seen that growth over the past 8 years and to have lived all over the city and to have worked all over the city from delivering flowers to landscaping to waiting table to coffee shops, I’ve pretty much done it all. I think Nashville still has plenty to give to me with it’s growth, but at the same time, I’m in a situation where my rent is really still pretty cheap and I live in a pretty hip part of town. But if that left me, the rent hike has gone up so much and I’m not ready to buy, I’d probably have to move, if my lease was terminated at my current house. So it’s something I’m always thinking about, where my backup city’s going to be. When I travel I’m always making notes of the places I could see myself. I do love Nashville though.
I’d find someplace that’s what Nashville was 8 years ago and start that process over again. I really like the Northeast, Providence, RI, Portland, ME, and Burlington, VT are all pretty sleepy still but very cool and rent is pretty affordable.
Do you think it would be harder to do music there without as many venues to play and less of that going on?
I think it would encourage me to tour a lot more. I think it would be good for me. I play a lot of shows in Nashville and that’s fun, but I think it would encourage me to get out of town more. Which is something I’ve always wanted to more of. It’s just a tough thing to do when you’re at my level, to go out and play for a few people, to have a hard time booking. I think if I had a little team behind me… maybe that’s just an excuse. I have friends that bust their butts without a team behind them and I just need to go out there and do it. So I think if i lived in a sleepier town, or a not as vibrant music scene, it would help me get out of town more and play and I think that would be good for me. But Nashville’s so great that everyone’s doing this. It just encourages you every day to write a better song and play a better gig and to have a better stage presence and to think more about your tones and vocal deliveries because everyone’s doing it. I go out and see music constantly and it’s a nice challenging atmosphere that might lose that challenge if I’m in a town that people don’t take that seriously. But who’s to say if people in the Northeast don’t take it seriously.
There’s definitely that scene in Boston and New York, so it’s up there, just maybe not the smaller towns.
I get to spend two and a half weeks in New York dogsitting in September. So I just get to be in Brooklyn living for free in a beautiful apartment and I’m gonna bring my little four-track and some outboard gear. I’ve never had time to sit and write like that. It’s gonna be like a free vacation, I just have to walk the dogs three times a day. It’ll be great, I’ll make coffee, I’ll walk the dogs, I’ll write, I’ll repeat and hopefully I’ll come out with enough material to start my next record because it’s about time.
It’s like a retreat… but to the big city.
New York is so, back to that challenge factor, when everyone’s there to kill it and hustling, every time I’m there I make voice memos of songs and I’m really creative in a vibrant atmosphere. So I’m thinking if I’m normally there for three days and feel that good, if I’m there for three weeks, I bet I could really get some work done.
Can you tell you tell us the story behind the song you played for the video?
I’ve got three pretty heavy songs on the album so I wanted that to just be an outlier of happiness. It’s still about a relationship but it’s about how silly it is to try to force something that’s just not right. I had the hots for a young lady and the feelings weren’t reciprocated and that was a first time thing for me. So I just wrote that silly little song about how it felt to try and force loving someone that wasn’t necessarily right and that’s okay. So definitely not a very heavy song at all, but I think it’s kind of nice to have on the record. I think it’s the third song so it lifts people up after two somewhat downers.
And yet it’s still kind of sad.
Yeah, of course. It’s still about unrequited love. But it wasn’t even love. It’s just a silly little I was trying to date someone and they weren’t having it.The full band version is great, there’s a little guitar solo.
The whole reason we tracked to tape - I haven’t told anyone this story and it’s such a good story - one of the cool things that made us want to do tape… I was at a Goodwill dropping off stuff to donate. I always donate and buy from Goodwill. I feel like the more I donate, the better deals and stuff I find. I’ve found some pretty sweet steals. But anyway, I was donating something that probably should have just been thrown away but there was a guy next to me donating that worked at a studio and there’s a bunch of tape and stuff an probably studio equipment. So I said, “Hey man, I know this is probably not the most kosher thing in the world, but if you’re just going to give it away, can I grab one of those reels of tape?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t care, man.” So I took one of theses beautiful two inch Ampex reels and I contacted the engineer Billy before we even booked the studio time and said, “Hey, I’ve got this tape I found at Goodwill for free and I’m wondering if it’ll work.” So Billy took it home and baked it. It’s this process where, pretty much, if it’s old tape it re-hardens it and makes it able to be run through a machine again. And he played it back and it was a bunch of really cool 80s country tunes. So we dropped that into protools so we could save it and then use that tape to record the album on, this free tape that I found at Goodwill so I thought that was really sweet.